As I begin this autobiography, I am haunted by the question, “Why bother?” I have, after all, begun so many writing projects that went nowhere—largely, I think because of the deep self-loathing and feelings of futility that have undercut so much that I have done or tried to do.
But I find inspiration in the human race — in my wife, my daughter, my students, my friends, my fellow humans and the eternal hope we have carried in our hearts throughout our history.
According to archaeological evidence, comets hit western North America around 13,000 years ago–changing the climate, eradicating species such as wooly mammoths, dire wolves and saber-tooth tigers and killing all humans in the area.
All humans. Not just the weak or the weary. All of them.
Yet here we are today. Southern California, where I write this, is now a teeming megalopolis. The human race in the Western U.S. has not only survived its regional extinction, but accomplished amazing things like space flight and computers that you can carry in your phone.
Yes, for me the human race, for all its foibles, genocidces, and mass psychosis, is a source of inspiration. Having always felt like an alien here in this world, and often feeling lost and alone, I take heart from my fellow human beings.
This is in spite of the fact that I grew up in a rather hopeless family situation, with seemingly endless chaos and ugliness. But inside me—and, I believe, in all humans, and in fact inside all that exists—was a spark that grew, so here’s this book.
I write in a dark time, and in many ways it’s growing darker. Forces of greed, ignorance and hatred are destroying the world as we know it. The planet’s climate is changing inexorably for the worse, and according to most climate scientists, people using fossil fuels are to blame. The ultra-rich who profit from fossil fuels are spending millions to buy government influence and ensure that they get to keep all their ill-gotten wealth, and that the masses will not change their fuel consumption habits until it is too late. Meanwhile cash-strapped cities on the coast of California are having to spend money they don’t have to protect homes from rising seawater. Around the world billions are living in poverty and oppression, sinking lower and lower into hopeless, disease, and death, while the rich and/or powerful few grow richer and more addicted to power, more determined to keep the rest of the human race down and in the dark.
Yet in the darkness we can better see the sparks. I see sparks igniting the flames of freedom in North Africa. I see sparks in union supporters protesting and sleeping overnight in the state capitol building in Wisconsin. I see sparks all around me, in my wife and daughter, in my immigrant students at the occupational center where I teach English.
People from around the world come to the United States of America for hope and new beginnings, yet here in the U.S.A., many see hope fading.
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” That is a line from one of my favorite poems, by Theodore Roethke. I believe, and it has been my experience, that out of darkness, hardship and hopelessness come opportunities for awakening to an inner light that is a source of greater hope than could have come from situations where everything is always easy and great.
Dark times and hardship force us to regroup, rethink, improvise, and be more creative. They force us to grow. They force us to do what religions say God does: create new possibilities.
In a way, you could say, hard times—dark times—force us to become God.
What is “God”? It’s a word, of course. A proper noun that has been misused and abused and disused over the millenia, perhaps more than any other noun in the human vocabulary.
But I believe, based on my experience (which includes almost forty years of daily meditation), that there is a beautiful, mysterious, loving intelligence in the universe, and that’s what I call God. And the God I love is a laughing dancer, a spirit of eternal joy that keeps me going through terrible losses, disappointments, defeats, setbacks, tragedy, and catastrophes.
To a great extent, I thank my mother for this silly spirituality that has kept me going all these years. Mom had a childlike quality about her that became more pronounced as she got older. My mother was what I feel to be a true child of God, a woman who loved going to church and singing praises to the God she loved, even though she sang terribly, and even though she had to drive eight miles of twisting country roads to get to church, and even though she became more and more of a danger to herself and everyone else on the road as she did so. My older brother Jim worked for a while with an ambulance company, and once he responded to a call for an accident that turned out to be our mother, who had fallen asleep at the wheel. (Fortunately, it was a single-car collision, and she had only minor injuries.)
But this is human life. We risk our lives every second that we’re here. Our human bodies are so easily damaged. We bleed so easily. And yet here we are. I’m writing this. You’re reading this, reacting to this. We’re all growing in this weird soup of the human condition, responding and reaching, always reaching for something better.
You gotta love the human race. I feel proud to be part of it, even though I’ve often felt like some kind of alien, like I’m not from around here.
Maybe I spent my last incarnation on another planet. I don’t know. But I do know that at birth I weighed eleven pounds, three and three-quarters ounces, and that because of my size my massive little body was so traumatized I almost died coming out of my mother, and the doctors separated me from my mother so I could be given special care. Maybe that early separation is one reason for the alienation I’ve always felt. Mom used to call me “the little alien.” She told me that as a very young baby, I looked around me with astonishment, like, “What the fuck am I doing in this weird place?”
Well, here’s what I’m doing in this weird place. I’m writing this weird book, being the weird guy that I am, and you know what? It doesn’t feel weird at all.